john davies
notes from a small curate

updated regularly
from a parish
in Liverpool, UK

    Reading the Everyday

    (Uncovering the language of the Ordinary)

    Notes from a talk given during Greenbelt on Iona week - May 2006

    Margaret Thatcher saw those standing at a bus stop as failures in life; to Jean-Paul Sartre people in bus queues had 'achieved practical and theoretical participation in common being.' Scratch the surface and everyday life is endlessly fascinating; this session explores the significant language of the ordinary.

    Picture 1

    Typical English landscape picture.
    Ordinary street in an ordinary housing estate on an ordinary day...
    (... made less ordinary by the fact that this is evidently 'bin day'...)
    But if we look more closely we can make a number of observations about this place:
    [Invite comments.... pavements need fixing / white van (man) / are all the houses the same? - (no!)....]

    ... This exercise shows that there is a lot to learn about 'the ordinary':

    Common Ground:
    "When you have lived or worked in a place for a long time you may cease to notice it unless something happens to jolt you. It might be the sun glinting on a stone wall revealing the fossils in it, discovering that [a street name reveals a forgotten history], the felling of an ancient and much loved tree which makes you look more closely at the remaining mature trees in the place."

    This little exercise is a deliberate attempt to jolt us into observation of the ordinary.

    Picture 2

    Colour picture tells you a little more about the place - Liverpool.
    Why purple?
    [Politics / religion / football!]
    [Theft reduction:
    It is likely that by having purple bins, when most other cities in the world have green ones, we are unlikely to be the target of "wheelie bin resalers". This is now a problem. For example, thousands of wheelie bins from Dublin ended up being purchased by a local authority in the West Midlands (second hand good value), who were not aware they were purchasing stolen goods! ]

    Other observation would reveal:
    people wheel in their neighbours bins as well as their own once emptied;
    bins left out become 'public' property, usually adopted by youngsters as (a) racing vehicles (b) things to burn...

    ... 'The ordinary' expresses the culture:
    Raymond Williams: Culture is ordinary: that is the first fact. Every human society has its own shape, its own purposes, its own meanings. Every human society expresses these in institutions, and in arts and learning. The making of a society is the finding of common meanings and directions, and its growth is an active debate and amendment under the pressures of experience, contact, and discovery, writing themselves into the land.

    Picture 3 - the actual, real-time, unedited shot

    Caption competition.....!!!
    Invite comments about other 'customised' bins - words / pictures etc.

    ... 'The ordinary' contains seeds of creativity and development of culture....

    ... eg, Bill Drummond's 'Twinning Kenny' project:
    From my vantage point on the fourteenth floor I couldn't help but notice that the Merseyside wheelie bins were bright purple. I thought they were brilliant. On closer inspection I also appreciated the city insignia of the Liver bird printed on them. I thought I could commandeer one of these wheelie bins, take it down the motorway to Kensington, London and exchange it for one from down there, and return to Liverpool with the southern one. Then after a couple of weeks they could both return to their respective homes, the minds of those two wheelie bins broadened, their lives enriched.

    Raymond Williams: A culture has two aspects: the known meanings and directions, which its members are trained to; the new observations and meanings, which are offered and tested. These are the ordinary processes of human societies and human minds, and we see through them the nature of a culture: that it is always both traditional and creative; that it is both the most ordinary common meanings and the finest individual meanings.
    We use the word culture in these two senses: to mean a whole way of life - the common meanings; to mean the arts and learning--the special processes of discovery and creative effort.

    Williams goes on to insist that these two meanings of culture are not separate but interract and depend on each other:

    Some writers reserve the word for one or other of these senses; I insist on both, and on the significance of their conjunction. The questions I ask about our culture are questions about deep personal meanings. Culture is ordinary, in every society and in every mind. - Raymond Williams, Resources of Hope, London: Verso 1989

    When art misrepresents the common meanings of the ordinary it fails,
    eg, factual error in '51st State' : In the scene when Felix De Souza goes into the pub to wind up the Manchester United supporters, the big give away that the pub is not in Manchester (as suggested by them turning off in the car to head to Manchester) was the purple Liverpool Wheelie bins.

    When the ordinary and the artistic or creative combine then new, powerful meanings are created,
    eg, Liverpool MP Maria Eagle on traffic protests-
    The neighbours complained to the council and to me. There was a local authority area meeting which was attended by about 200 people. The issue caused a huge surge in democratic participation in local community activities. It also caused some local residents to block off one of the streets with the purple wheelie bins that the council had recently introduced. I must say that to me, as a mere observer, the bins seemed to be very useful for blocking off streets, although of course their main purpose is to hold rubbish.

    You may be thinking that this talk so far has been 'rubbish' ... what has it to do with our theme this week, Speaking in Tongues, reflecting on the meanings of our language and the language of God...?

    I want to suggest that the language which God speaks, the language in which God communicates with us, is the language of the ordinary; and that to know God, and to express God to others, we need to become deep students of, and fluent communicators with, the ordinary.

    If this seems obvious then that is very good indeed, because we're talking about the obvious ... I'm keen to underline it because I feel that part of the problem of our society, which Christians share, is that we're seduced by the extraordinary... that we're powerfully attracted away from the mundane towards the exotic, the erotic, the sublime. Whether in the all-pervasive advertising which pollutes our mental environment, or through all-present and all-powerful forms of peer pressure, whether in an attraction always to 'the new' and the innovative in the Christian movement, the pull is away from the ordinary towards glittering prizes which prove to be unreacheable. Which is the source of our dejection and malaise.

    Doreen Massey (Space, Place and Gender):
    ... amid the Ridley Scott images of world cities, the writing about scyscraper fortresses, the Baudrillard visions of hyperspace ... most people still live in places like Harlesden or West Bromwich.

    If we can learn to value the ordinary and - if I may begin to theologise - if we can learn to see God in the ordinary, then we may be strengthened to resist the powerful forces which disempower us, and become reconnected to the source of our true selves.

    (Pip's quote), Somerset Maughan, The Razor's Edge:
    For men and women are not only themselves,
    they are the region in which they were born,
    the city apartment in which they learned to walk,
    the games they played as children,
    the old wives tale they overheard,
    the food they ate,
    the schools they attended,
    the sports they followed,
    the poems they read,
    and the God they believed in.

    My suggestion is that the Christian project must involve us affirming these ordinary things very deeply, doing our church and our theology and our praying whilst deeply engaged with these basic building blocks of life. And though this is a call for us to deal with the mundane things in our lives, this is not a calling to dullness - it's about discovering new possibilities of being creative, with the ordinary things of life:

    Henri Bergson:
    If reality could immediately reach into our senses and our consciousness, if we could come into direct contact with things and with each other, probably art would be useless, or rather we should all be artists...

    Dave Walker, cartoonist, creator of the Dullest Blog in the World:

    Walking past the ironing board April 1 2003
    "I left the room and walked past the ironing board which I had left up in order to do some ironing. When I came back into the room I walked past the ironing board once again."

    Dave: This pleases me. It is even more mundane than most. It is quite interesting to read it now a few years later. I remember all sorts of small details about my life which I would not normally have thought to record.

    Dave was 'inspired' to start this blog because,
    At the time no-one had really done anything poking fun at the concept of blogging. The fact that blogs are often perceived as being uninteresting was the 'easy target' so to speak, though in fact I tend not to find most blogs uninteresting. In fact the opinionated ones about politics are, in my opinion, usually far more boring than ones about everyday life.

    - the popularity of the Dullest Blog in the World is witness that many other people agree with Dave on this....

    Oscar Wilde: It is only shallow people who do not judge by appearances. The true mystery of the world is the visible, not the invisible...

    Celtic prayers

    I make this bed
    In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost,
    In the name of the night we were conceived,
    In the name of the night that we were born,
    In the name of the day we were baptized,
    In the name of each night, each day,
    Each angel that is in the heavens.

    Bless to me, O God,
    Each thing mine eye sees;
    Bless to me, O God,
    Each sound mine ear hears;
    Bless to me, O God,
    Each odour that goes to my nostrils;
    Bless to me, O God,
    Each taste that goes to my lips;
    Each note that goes to my song;
    Each ray that guides to my way;
    Each thing that I pursue;
    Each lure that tempts my will;
    The zeal that seeks my living soul,
    The three that seek my heart,
    The zeal that seeks my living soul,
    The three that seek my heart.

    Michael Leunig

    We give thanks for the mystery of hair:
    Too little here and too much there,
    Censored and shaved, controlled and suppressed,
    Unwelcome guest in soups and sandwiches,
    Difficult growth always needing attention,
    Gentle and comforting, complex and wild,
    Reminding us softly that we might be animals,
    Growing and growing 'til the day that we die
    And the day after as well, so they say.
    In all of its places, in all of its ways,
    We give thanks for the blessing of hair.

    God bless those who suffer from the common cold.
    Nature has entered into them;
    Has led them aside and gently lain them low
    To contemplate life from the wayside;
    To consider human frailty;
    To receive the deep and dreamy messages of fever.
    We give thanks for the insights of this humble perspective.
    We give thanks for blessings in disguise.


    Doreen Massey:
    Much of life for many people, even in the heart of the First World, still consists of waiting in a bus shelter with your shopping for a bus that never comes.

    ... it is our challenge to engage fully with 'the ordinary things of the world which Christ will make special.' (Iona Abbey communion liturgy)

    How can we develop our understanding of the language of the ordinary?
    - introduce next session - methodology (walks etc) ...

    [Forward to next talk, and linked references and resources list]

    I welcome your comments - please Email me